WTF?! You Don’t Know Nothin’!

I find myself going through a script and writing that oh-so-mundane phrase as I read each and every line of text:  WTF?  or OMG!

I am not proud of this fact.  Rather embarrassed as a matter of fact.  I feel as if I am trying desperately to fit into a world in which I don’t belong.  I am nowhere near the age of a teenager, nor have I recently moved beyond that demographic.  But I incessantly borrow the text message phrasing of the younger generation whenever I try to analyze a script.

Most actors make the mistake of reading a script solely for facts.  Rarely do they consider the more important consideration:  What is your Strong Point of View

BIG MISTAKE.  (Please do yourself the favor of reading the work of Sandford Meisner, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Uta Hagen, Robert Lewis, and a whole of host of excellent theatre artists.)

The character believes many things fervently.  But the character knows NOTHING.  The character is operating on a strong sense of faith in what cannot be proved.

A script is a continual exchange of points of view.  Yes, there are facts, there are undeniable circumstances; but facts are boring, and circumstances are influences which force or propel characters to behave in ways in which they might never have imagined themeselves capable.  The character of any play is always behaving with incomplete information.  This is what makes the character’s decisions so exciting, so riveting.

There is nothing more boring than the actor solely revealing the facts of the case.

A script is an argument, a debate, something unsettled and yet to be determined.  Some kind of fate or outcome always hangs in the balance — what is at stake?  [By the way, I hate that phrase, What is at stake (steak)?  It always causes me to imagine a large pile of sirloin, one finely cut piece of animal flesh piled on top of the other, eventually rotting in the sun, altogether unappealing.  I prefer the question:  What are you willing to do to get what you want?  And, conversely, what are you NOT willing to do to get what you want?  (Please read Uta Hagen’s A Challenge for the Actor.)]

Point of view has to do with opinion.  People without opinions, STRONG opinions, are inherently boring in performance.  If it doesn’t matter to you, why should it matter to the audience?

Every line is a surprise.  At the very least, a potential surprise.  A shift in the action.  A deviation from what is expected.  Each line is a chance for the unexpected.

There is nothing casual, nothing commonplace, nothing normal on stage or in performance that is spoken or enacted.  Stories are chronicles of the unexpected, of events FUBAR, of the ever present SNAFU, a continual series of inescapable moments leading to the question:  WHAT THE F#$%?! 

What Were You Thinking?

It’s been sometime since I’ve taken a moment to sit down at the keyboard to type out my all-too-random and self-indulgent musings.  My computer told me that I haven’t updated or even visited the site since February 23rd.  Almost two and a half months.  Thanks to anyone who might read this for your patience as well as your time.

During the past several months, I have been in three productions and am directing another.  As much as I believe in the necessity of learning in a classroom, there is truly nothing as comparable as learning live on stage in front of an audience.  Learning by mistake.  Screwing up in public — a paying public.  Confronting the terrifying and unpredictable moment when large chunks of text completely vacate your mind.  Having no clue as to how to move beyond this blank moment — other than to stare dumbly, pleadingly, yet intensely into your scene partner’s eyes while he or she stares dumbly back as if to say, “Sorry, you’re on your own.”  That is, of course, assuming you do have a scene partner and aren’t performing a one-man or one-woman show.  Then it’s just a matter of shifting the dumb, pleading, intense stare out toward the audience.  (I’ve found that if you hold that dumb, pleading, intense stare long enough the audience will begin to believe that they are somehow at fault!)

There are many reasons for “going up” on lines, or, as in my case, huge passages of text.  There are some very legitimate reasons.  For instance, the woman in the back who randomly stood up toward the end of Act 1 and started waving her arms.  Perhaps it was an effort to determine where the air-conditioning vent was, or maybe she was just being friendly.  I’m not sure.  Or the individuals, and they are always, always in attendance, who decide or forget to turn off the ringers on their cellphones.  Nothing like the theme to American Beauty or Led Zeplin’s Kashmir occurring during the second act of a period play.

More often than not, however, it is my own fault.  I forget the text because I have failed to determine its value.  What it means to me and what it means to my scene my partner and the other characters in the play.  I like to remind myself — have to remind myself – constantly that there are no facts in a play.  There are only opinions.  Strong opinions.  Opinions so strong that they influence with an almost dictatorial precision my behavior on stage.  I think it was Elia Kazan who reportedly said something like plays and films are just like life with all the boring parts cut out.  I need to constantly remember that about the text the playwright provides my character.  There is no small talk.  Everything has purpose and is precise.

For each line that is spoken to me on stage, I have to determine two things:  What I Think about it and What I do Do about it.  I have a Reaction to it, and then I have a Response to it.  Sanford Meisner referred to this Reaction-Response as a Strong Point of View.  Sometimes my response mirrors my reaction; other times it does not.  Sometimes my response is opposite my reaction.  As actors, we fall into the trap of providing ourselves weak points of view to no points of view at all.  Weak Reactions followed by Weak Responses.  When we do this, everything becomes casual, unimportant, insignificant, and purposeless.  Casual, unimportant, insignificant, and purposeless things are easily forgotten.  (No wonder I am forced all too frequently to employ an intense and pleading blank stare!)

Humperdink Again?! (Is that even how his name is spelled?)

Feelings.  Actors are continually oppressed by the notion that they need to feel something.  But most actors already feel something all the time every day of the week.  24/7.  It’s never a matter of feeling.  It’s a matter of doing.  What is the character in any scene trying to do to the other character or for himself or herself?  We may wish to feel a certain thing in life and on stage, but this feeling, this emotional response, is triggered by what we are trying to do and the outcome of our actions.  Feelings are a reaction.  To the circumstances that surround us.  The people, the environment influences.  Feelings are a response.  They are not stimulae.  We see something.  We feel something.  Seeing is an action.  We hear something.  We feel something.  Hearing is an action.  We touch something.  We feel something.  Feeling is an action.  And so on and so forth.

It’s quite annoying to watch an actor conjure an emotional response on stage.  It’s distracting.  The audience is taken out of the story, and the collective attention is directed toward the skillful trick of the actor.  And it does impress many.  But it doesn’t tell the story.  It shows off the actors ability to move himself or herself.

To borrow a statement from a much smarter artist than I could ever hope to be:  The play’s the thing.  The story is what’s important.  What’s the story?  When the actor understands the story and his or her role in that story, they cannot help but be moved.  Moved in the service of the story.  Not moved in an attempt to get the audience on his or her side.  Not moved in attempt to get the sympathy of the viewing crowd.  Not moved in an attempt to edify his or her faith in some depth of sensitivity.

Leave yourself alone.  Start from who you are.  Start from where you are.  Tell the story.  And you just might move mountains. 

What’s the Story?

Actors are storytellers.  So is the director and the designers of any production.  This must be fully accepted and understood.  Many, if not most, do not accept or understand this.  They don’t recognize that it is an awesome and thrilling responsibility to tell a story.

First of all, you take charge of the playwright’s creation.  The playwright is at the mercy of individuals who may not know their elbow from another part of their body.  We’ve all been involved in that kind of production.  The director has a concept, imposes it upon the play, and chaos ensues.  Unfortunately, unless the play is an established classic, the playwright gets blamed for over-writing or under-writing or poor writing.  More often than not, it’s the playwright that has been misinterpreted or uninterpreted.  The creative team — actors, director, and designers – has let the playwright down.

There is also the occupational hazard of theatrical convention (this exists in filmed media as well.)  There is so often an accepted histrionic behavior (histrionic, if you don’t know, is defined as overly dramatic in behavior or speech.)  It’s an accepted convention.  (Convention for the unfamiliar is defined as:  an accepted usage, standard, or usage.)  There’s nothing original, impulsive, instinctual, or organic (I’m not a fan of this over-used word) about theatrical convention.

What is conventional theatrical behavior?  It’s hard to define, but it occurs so often in so many ways.  Here’s an attempt at explaining it.  In a script, the character is at a funeral.  The actor notices this circumstance and then determines that funeral = sadness, tears, crying.  The actor fails to consider what the situation is, what might be needed during a difficult time of life (good cheer, comfort, and maybe a laugh or two!).  Instead the actor serves his or her own needs rather than thinking about the OTHER characters, the OTHER people in the situation.

When considering the story of a scene, the actor needs to define the simple situation of the scene, the relationships involved in that scene, and the needs of the OTHERS in the scene.  What’s the story?  What’s does the story need at this moment?  And how can I serve the story here and now?

That’s what the actor needs to discover.  Leave yourself alone, figure out what the OTHER needs from you, and determine how you can serve the story.

Moment to Schmoment?

This is a really popular catch-phrase in acting.  Moment to moment.  Not moment to schmoment.  That’s just a really lame attempt at humor.  Sorry about that….But every one tosses it around so cavalierly.  That phrase:  moment to moment.  As if it were easy to understand and simple to accomplish.

But what does it mean?  More importantly, how do you achieve it?

Some actors like to leave themselves alone and simply see what happens during the course of a rehearsal or a performance.  Seems brave.  Perhaps it is.  But acting, more eloquently stated by Uta Hagen in Respect for Acting then I will do right now, has everything to do with the illusion of the first time.  Actors do the same or very similar things night after night, but they make it look as if it has never happened before.  It’s one of the occupational hazards for the actor.

After all, there is a script.  The playwright has pre-determined everything the actor will say and do.  When the actor will enter.  When the actor will leave.  Generous playwrights encourage the actor to feel a specific some-thing.  More dictatorial playwrights demand a very specific response at a very specific moment in the play.  How can the actor live on stage moment to moment when she knows exactly what is about to happen, when she knows exactly what must happen, when she knows exactly what her response must be before she has ever gotten to that precise moment?  It can be an incredible distraction.

The actor has to lay the foundation for a specific response but also has to arrive at the response as if it were a surprise.  Part if this is accomplished by careful analysis of the script.  (Analysis is such a dry, medicinal word.  I wish I had a better, more inspiring phrase to offer.  Oh well.)  That analysis has to recognize that each line, each action, each exchange on stage is a surprise.  Each line is a WTF opportunity.  The play, the scene must be read in this manner.  Surprise — the unexpected — is what creates the heightened experience on stage.  Every interaction on stage contains the potential for this sense of surprise.  At the very least, every interaction — whether through the dialogue or through the physical life — should be considered, if not crafted, in this manner.

Yes, “crafted”.  Moment to moment, contrary to some opinions, is a crafted endeavor.  The actor cannot simply leave himself or herself alone to the whims of the imagination from one night or matinee to the next.  Not when dealing with a text.  Acting is not a matter of blind improvisation.  And improvisation has its own set of rules.  The rules of the game.  Demands that the improviser must follow.  Improvisation, too, is an illusion.  Everything on stage, before an audience, is an illusion.  Of the first time.  A substantial part of the art of acting lies in the actor’s ability to carefully craft a performance, create opportunity for his partners on stage join in that performance, to impact and effect that carefully crafted performance, and leave room for the “happy accident”.  As if for the first time, night after night, performance after performance.

Baptism by Fire

The opportunity to rehearse and perform a play is arguably the best way to learn to act.  There’s some old saying to that effect.  All the formal schooling in the world can’t re-place the baptism by fire that is the need to succeed in front of a live audience.  The ability to make quick decisions and commit to a course of action is invaluable.  This tends to occur when the prospect of a paying public is fast approaching.

A challenge occurs when this kind of pressure – the pressure to perform – propels the creative effort toward safe decisions.  Decisions that will seem acceptable to the majority.  Choices that will make infinite sense and will invite no debate.  Nothing that could possibly shake the attention of anyone watching.

The pressure to perform is weird thing.  Some actors are very sensitive to it.  Know they are sensitive to it.  Others claim the opposite and brag about their comfort in front of the audience, any audience.  Either kind of actor is susceptible to the practical need and genetically encoded desire to fit in.  Few of us want to be separated from the group, from the herd.  We want to fit in.  To fit in is to survive.  That’s why there are no plaid zebras.  They were the easiest to spot way-back-when, and predators did away with them a long time ago.

It is an unconscious habit to want and to work to blend into our surroundings.  To be-come part of the whole.  It’s safer.  And the body knows this at a cellular level.  It’s in our DNA.  So the thrill that we sense whenever we act in performance or in rehearsal is a response, an innate response, a chemical response, to the unconscious habit to blend in.  To lift ourselves out of the world around us and separate ourselves, distinguish ourselves as different from the rest is unnatural.  Engaging in the art of acting, the practice of acting, it is unnatural.  It’s thrilling.  It’s terrifying.  It’s an adrenaline rush.  It’s fight or flight.

So the rehearsal process is a terrifying journey.  It is also a thrilling one.  It’s typically both.  Because each day at work on a play, hopefully the actor is continually putting herself out there, making quick instinctive dangerous decisions.  Constantly separating herself from the pack.  Stepping far away from the conventions of conformity, of approval, of safety, of fitting in.  Of merely doing what works or what is effective.

What exactly is it that the actor is looking for?  How does the actor get there?  I don’t know.  No one really does.  So just start flinging stuff around the room and see what sticks.  It’s a messy process, and much of it stinks.  But it’s one of the few things
in life that you can truly call your own.

Be. Havior.

I try as best I can to reply to as many of the responses to this blog.  I appreciate the time and attention people offer in reading and responding.  It means something to me because most of the time I think I’m sending a load of crap out into the ether.  So just a short while ago I was emailing a reply, got a little curious, wanted to know to whom and where I might be sending my response.  Several times I’ve been surprised by the variety of readers and their home countries.  I think it’s basically an ego thing for me.  I recognize that.  I admit it.  I’m not proud of it.  I’m just sayin’.

Anyway, a short while ago I was intrigued by one of the responses I received.  Couldn’t tell if I was being insulted or complimented.  It was enigmatic zen-like statement.  Could go either way.  Maybe something got lost in translation, I thought.  So I checked out who sent the response.  Definitely not a typical name.  It seemed to be perhaps outside the United States?  Something unfamiliar to my limited experience and indicative of unlimited ignorance.  I was curious.  Investigated further, clicked on the address attached to the name….and wound up at a completely inappropriate website.  I can’t describe it, the website, because I immediately sought to click on the white “X” in the red box to the top-right corner of my computer screen.  All I thought was, “You idiot!  You fu$%#ing idiot!”

I imagined some Trojan virus (how fitting) or worm (I’m not gonna go near that one) or whatnot infecting my computer and the havoc that would be wreaked upon my life.

And then, just as quickly, something else began to happen.  The sweat along my brow.  The adrenaline rush through the body.  Forgive the Coldplay reference, but a sudden rush of blood to the head.  Embarrassment.  Shame.  This really deep-seated shame.  I could feel my skin turning rapidly from pink to red.

I was alone at work at my desk.  I didn’t do anything, I didn’t see anything.  (Okay, there were blue and white design elements, the screen bore no signs of any thing recognizably English in language, and there were certainly specific bodily forms that one didn’t need to investigate fully to achieve an understanding of what one was viewing.)  But I immediately clicked off, I swear got out of there as fast as I could. But still I felt guilty.  (Even now as I write this, time has passed yet there is still this residual sense of shame.)  I felt like I had done something really suspect.  All in an instant. In the click of a mouse.

Of course much of this may be anchored in my cultural upbringing, blah, blah, blah.  The amazing thing to me, the stunning thing to me, the thing that is most remarkable is that there were no witnesses to what had just occurred.  Just me.  All my myself….But sitting beside me were my beliefs, my past experiences, my upbringing, and all the proverbial baggage that makes up the hardwiring of a life.  It makes no sense that I should be embarrassed, guilty, ashamed for what occurred.  My behavior was and is illogical, irrational, didn’t and doesn’t make any sense.

Or maybe it does.  I guess that’s the value of evaluating behavior in retrospect.  It’s not just time the causes the power of experience to dissipate.  It’s time combined with analysis.  We label, name, categorize, each and every experience, and at the moment we do that the experience moves from the visceral — the heart, the gut, the body — to the head.  So even though my behavior, my experience of that simple click of a mouse, could easily be fully explained and understood, I don’t wanna.  Leave it alone and let it be.

Let it.  Be.  Havior.

Say It Ain’t So, Joe!

It always happens the same way every morning, yet I always expect or hope for a dif-ferent outcome.  The coffeepot.  The Mr. Coffee coffee pot.  Endorsed by Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio!  One cannot pour the damn liquid from the glass container without coffee leaking on the counter.  I don’t know why this is.  Human beings have sent astronauts to the moon, developed the microprocessor, cloned sheep, found a safe and effective way to dispense cheese from a can.  Surely there must be some way to create a universal coffee pot that safely, effectively, and efficiently permits the caffeine addict to get a daily dose without having to reach for a roll of paper towels….That’s what I believe.  That is my hope.  And every morning I truly have the hope that I can pour my morning jolt  with-out incident.  Despite past evidence, past experience to the contrary.  It’s an irrational faith.  I haven’t purchased a new automatic drip coffee maker.  I haven’t studied and improved upon my pouring technique.  For all intents and purposes, I basically do the same exact thing every morning.  Employ the same procedure.  But I expect a different result.  (Which I know is the definition of insanity, but that’s a whole other discussion into which I don’t wish to enter at the present moment.)  It seems that hope, expecta-tion, the desire for a particular outcome yet to be determined is sometimes a very ir-rational thing.  At least for me.

A whole host of similar daily expectations and resulting daily behaviors comes to mind.  The days I leave my house late for an appointment and expect that there will be no traffic – or that it somehow won’t slow me down.  Or that I will get up at the exact time I set my alarm.  That I won’t hit the snooze button tomorrow morning.  Or that all my socks will come out of the dryer.

These are admittedly very small and insignificant things.  They are of little to no con-sequence in the grand scheme of a life.  But if someone can have such daily irrational expectations, why can’t a character in a play?  A play which is usually more often than not a thoroughly heightened series of experiences?  I know that for me the big moments in life are the ones in which I was just winging it no matter how much preparation and planning went into it.

So often the actor makes the smart choice, figures out the rational decision, comes up with the measured response.  I don’t know why this is, and I don’t care to examine it.  (It’s not my field of expertise if I even have a field of expertise.)

What I do believe is that scripts are full of characters who make decisions and choose to behave in a manner that those characters believe will produce a desired outcome.  This doesn’t mean they are smart.  Or logical.  It means that they are impulsive, wholly human, and hopeful that the things they do today will change the way things went the
day before.

Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?

Outside the post office I was getting into my car.  An unshaven heavy-set man pulling an old suitcase behind him politely called me “Sir” and asked if I could help him get a little something to eat.  I quickly dismissed him with a perfunctory, “I’m really sorry.”  He just said, “Okay,” and labored on his way toward a small public park at the end of the street.

I don’t normally have cash on me.  At most, I have a small collection of change in the cup holder in my car.  But this morning I had a rare amount of cash in my wallet.  $12.  My mind began the standard cynical debate which occurs almost daily whenever confronted with these all-too-routine requests for help:

He’ll probably only spend anything I give him on alcohol or something similar.

He’s probably a con artist.

He’s not my responsibility.

I’ve got bills of my own to pay.

And on and on.

I watched him in the rearview mirror of my car.  He’d settled himself on a small stone fence that divided two properties down the street.  Before doing so, he’d looked around to be certain, I assume, that he wouldn’t bother anyone or be chased away by a home owner.  He just sat there and looked across the street at the empty park.

I don’t know exactly what prompted me to do so, but impulsively I took out my wallet. $12.  A ten and two singles.  I tucked the two singles back into my wallet, walked down the street to where he was sitting, stuck my arm out awkwardly and offered they guy the ten.  He looked at me blankly.  Like he didn’t understand what was happening.  Didn’t reach for the money at first.  It then seemed to dawn on him what was happening.

“Really?”  He was visibly shocked.  His eyes went from the $10 bill to me and back to the ten and then back to me.  Slowly.  An expression of benign incredulity.  I had to place the money in his hand.  He wouldn’t reach for it.  “Thanks, brother.”

“Take care of yourself.”

“I’m tryin’.”

This entire exchange from our first encounter to the moment the money got into his hand lasted maybe five minutes and involved $10.  Not a great sum of cash.  Not much at stake.  But I wasn’t gonna give him anything at first.  I wanted to hold onto that money.  I can be a stingy SOB.  And then the time I took to rationalize and bolster my stingy behavior.  Then the impulse to help him out in some small way.  The need to almost force him to take the money.  His quiet disbelief.  We spoke about six sentences between us.  Nothing eloquent or memorable at all.

Stella Adler used to tell her students, “It’s not the lines.  It’s the life!”  Each moment is a world of experience.  A world of thought.  A world of feeling.  Of impulse embraced and impulse denied.  Never a dead or dull moment.

What Does String Theory Have to Do With the TV Show Hoarders?

One more thing about my brother.  As I wrote previously, he’s a kind of renaissance man.  A scientist and musician who loves movies and the process of story-telling.  He also likes to have a few beers and talk smack.  He’s a fun guy to have around.  Anyway, recently we were sitting around and talking about string theory (I know that sounds like a lot of BS and really pretentious, but just hear me out.)  If you don’t know what string theory is, I can’t explain it.  It’s beyond me.  But it has something to do with a unifying universal theory of how the universe exists at all and continues to operate.  I’m probably wrong about that, but it’s close enough for the purposes of this discussion.  String theory holds that there are many dimensions beyond the three of four that humans can physically sense and perceive.  Maybe as many as 11 or 21 permitting multiple parallel universes – all occurring at the same time, side by side by side.  Something absurd like
that.  So absurd to me that I challenged my brother with the question, “Why do I need to be aware of that?”  What good does that information do me?  I’m quite content with my three dimensional existence.  As a matter of fact, I find that three dimensions are more than I can handle much of the time.  There’s no need to throw 8 more into the mix.

He countered with this.

There are beliefs that we hold.  Religious.  Spiritual.  Cultural.  National.  Etc.  We inherit them from birth; and, as life goes on and we grow and learn and hopefully mature, we inspect, challenge, sometimes reject and sometimes come to a new under-standing of these beliefs.  Some we keep.  Some we throw away.  But some just stick.  No matter what we do.  They become habit.  Unconscious habit.  And we respond not to the present moment but to a memory – an unconscious habitual behavior – from the past.

For example, have you ever watched the show Hoarders?  More often than not, and I will go so far as to say 100% of the time, the hoarder’s compulsive behavior is rooted in some trauma from the past – a death, a divorce, an abusive relationship.  So the current, present-day behavior of the hoarder is shaped by a past event.  Which means the behavior is not only informed by the past, it is locked in the past.  It is locked in the parallel universe of the past.  The hoarder is breathing, eating, walking around in the present, but continually responding to an event that happened years even decades ago.
Which is kinda sorta like living two lives at the same time – one conscious, one uncon-scious.  And both having a very real impact.

I still don’t know for certain how any of this relates to string theory, but the show Hoarders definitely terrifies me.